Denver Public Schools critic Brandon Pryor had his first day in court Tuesday to try to persuade a federal judge to uphold his free-speech rights and lift the district’s ban against him from school buildings and board meetings.
Pryor was on the witness stand all day before U.S. District Court Judge John Kane as part of his lawsuit against the district, which banned him in October from board meetings and schools where his children do not attend because of what the district described as his “repeated abusive, bulling, threatening and intimidating conduct” directed at DPS administrators, including Superintendent Alex Marrero.
The district also terminated his volunteer and football coaching activities.
Represented by his wife, attorney Samantha Lorraine Pryor, he testified that his criticisms and sometimes profane outbursts did not rise to threats or harassment and are protected by the First Amendment. For years, he said, he has been passionate in pushing DPS administrators and board members to add resources and programs to schools in far northeast Denver.
In her opening statement, Samantha Pryor described the ban as a “clear case of retaliation” against Brandon Pryor for fighting “a history of oppression and discrimination by DPS against Black students, employees and community members.”
Denver attorney Andrew Ringel, representing DPS, questioned Pryor by detailing a series of sometimes hostile phone conversations, texts, Facebook posts and other communications from Pryor in which administrators said they felt intimidated or threatened.
In an Oct. 18 letter to Pryor, the district said the ban was necessary because he violated safety policies that protect staff and students. “The district does not make this decision lightly and has based its decision on a long pattern of conduct directed at district staff,” the letter stated.
Judge Kane took no action, and the hearing on Pryor’s request for a preliminary injunction continues Wednesday at the downtown Alfred Arraj U.S. Courthouse. Kane said he will rule “as soon as possible” once testimony by Pryor and other witnesses concludes and he reviews evidence.
Whatever Kane decides, the Pryors will continue to press their lawsuit against the district. Samantha Pryor said they are seeking undetermined financial damages because Brandon Pryor’s reputation has been badly damaged by the district’s actions.
“We still plan on going through with the litigation whether or not the ban is lifted because they have infringed on my free speech rights,” Brandon Pryor said in an interview with Boardhawk prior to Tuesday’s hearing.
Asked if he will soften his rhetoric if the judge orders DPS to lift the ban, he said:
“Definitely not. The kids don’t have anybody fighting for them … Parents are overworked and underpaid and don’t have time to pay attention to what is happening in DPS … My activism is not going to change because of this.
“They want to hang me in public to silence me. That’s the message with this ban… I know there are limitations to my First Amendment free speech rights, but I haven’t crossed those boundaries.”
Pryor is a co-founder of the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, an innovation high school that opened a year ago with the first class of ninth graders in Far Northeast Denver. The academy focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics inspired by historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Both attorneys showed Facebook posts and referenced other communications to support their arguments.
In a Zoom meeting in February 2021, for example, Pryor chastised an administrator whose staff mistakenly communicated to parents that the STEAM Academy was located at 1860 Lincoln Street (the address of the district main office). Pryor acknowledge using profanity and raising his voice and demanded to know who made the mistake because he said it hurt their enrollment at a critical time when they were launching the school.
“Mistake or no mistake, it doesn’t eliminate the harm to the Black student community,” he said.
Ringel, however, said the district made good-faith efforts to rectify the mistake by agreeing to the original commitment to fund the new school at a level of 125 students rather than the initial 55 ninth graders who enrolled.
In another instance that occurred six days before the Oct. 18 ban letter went out, a video showed Pryor confronting two DPS administrators in an elevator hallway after a school board work session that discussed enrollment issues. Pryor argued with the two because he said STEAM’s low enrollment was due in part to their earlier mistake and to inferior facilities and services at the school.
He told them they should be fired for incompetence and told one of them to “kiss my ass” as Pryor was leaving the building. Deputy Superintendent of Operations James Carpenter said to Pryor during the exchange, “Why are you attacking us?”
In his testimony, Pryor downplayed the incident, saying “white folks use that term when Blacks try to talk to them.”
More testimony is scheduled for Wednesday, including from DPS administrators and others. Judge Kane said the hearing may continue until Thursday given the long witness list.